- Anuj Sawhney
A United Congress and Its Uncertain Future
In the midst of a global pandemic which continues to devastate the country at large, the United States successfully held its 2020 elections. The Democratic Party was able to take control of the legislative branch while ousting then-incumbent President Donald J. Trump and electing President Joseph R. Biden.
2020 saw record voter turnout, as reported by Pew, with the election largely being seen as a referendum on former President Trump and the Republican Party. The Trump presidency was marred with scandals and was blamed for an inefficient response to COVID-19 that devastated the country. While the Democrats had been expected to gain seats in the House and narrowly retake control of the Senate, the election results were underwhelming. Despite the upsets in both the Georgia Senate races, the GOP significantly over-performed nationwide and gained 14 seats in the House. This has left Democrats with an extremely narrow majority in the House of Representatives and a 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris being able to cast a vote to break ties.
Unified control of Congress and the Executive Branch was last in the hands of the GOP. In 2014, the Republican Party was able to capture control of both chambers of Congress and in 2016, Trump led the party to victory in the executive branch as well. However, the 2017- 2019 session of Congress, the 115th Congress, and its legislative accomplishments would be described as modest at best and a failure at worst.
Dr. Sarah Binder in the Journal of Politics noted that Republicans failed to legislate effectively, often sparring with the opposition party to an extent that inhibited its efficacy. The 115th Congress’ most notable accomplishment was the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, but truly, the Congress is widely remembered for failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and pass the GOP-proposed American Health Care Act.
The last time the Democratic Party gained control of Congress was 2006. In 2008, the party also gained control of the Presidency while retaining unified control for the 111th Congress. The Democrats accomplished a significant portion of their legislative agenda, likely due to the majority they had in both chambers. Notably, Congress passed President Barack Obama’s signature policy of the ACA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
President Biden has promised his administration along with the Democratic Congress will enact significant policies. Congress passed his $1.9 Trillion dollar stimulus plan in early March. However, in spite of the Democrat-controlled Congress, Biden is facing issues passing legislation due to the extremely slim majority and divisions in the party. Specifically, the stimulus plan was passed slower than anticipated and Biden has been mostly legislating through executive action. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), two conservative Democrats, have signaled their opposition to certain parts of Biden agenda and have committed to not getting rid of the filibuster.
Both have stated that they oppose universal stimulus checks (wanting relief to be focused on the economically disadvantaged) and passing a higher minimum wage through budget reconciliation. Reconciliation is a parliamentary procedure of the US Senate that expedites bills pertaining to the budget and prevents a bill from being filibustered. In response to their opposition to Biden’s agenda, a progressive PAC has launched in Arizona and West Virginia to primary the Senators, signaling a possible fracture in the Democratic Party leading up to the 2022 midterms.
Midterms are often regarded as a referendum on the presidential party’s performance, and often, the incumbent party loses ground and control of the House and to a lesser extent, the Senate. As an effect of the backlash to the Obama presidency, the Republicans flipped 63 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 seats in the Senate. However, the Republican Party has reached a breaking point after the storming of the Capitol and the acquittal of Donald Trump for his role in the attack (with 7 GOP senators joining every Democrat to convict him).
This divide, along with a map somewhat more favorable for the Democrats, may not lead to a devastating defeat similar to the 2010 midterm elections. Yet, the future of the Democratic Party and their control of Congress remains uncertain at best.